Since the game analysis for the Arizona Bowl has been so ably handled by Nicolas Lewis, here’s a little pregame reading about New Mexico State’s sparse history in bowl games, and some discussion of that long drought.
New Mexico State has never lost a bowl game.
Of the 130 FBS schools, ten can make that claim. Four haven’t yet played in a bowl: Massachusetts, Texas State, Charlotte, & Coastal Carolina; they have all moved up to FBS since 2012. The other five that have at least one bowl win include Idaho, moved to FBS in 1996 (and returns to FCS in 2018); FAU (2006); and Appalachian State, Old Dominion, and Georgia Southern (all 2014). New Mexico State has been in FBS, formerly Division I-A, nearly from the beginning, joining the University Division in 1951 with most of the rest of the Border Conference (Arizona moved in 1948, when the division was established).
The Aggies’ bowl record is 2-0-1, all in the Sun Bowl, held in El Paso, Texas, only 35 or so miles south of Las Cruces. Two of the three involved come-from-behind heroics.
The Three Bowl Games
New Mexico A&M 14, Hardin-Simmons 14: The tie occurred in the first Sun Bowl game between two college teams, January 1, 1936. Hardin-Simmons, in Abilene, Texas, and now in Division III, was an independent, joined the Border Conference in 1941, and played there until the conference dissolved in 1961. The Cowboys scored first and led 14-7 at the half. The school yearbook reports: “With but a few minutes to play and the ball in midfield, the Aggies pulled the most sensational play of the season when (quarterback Lem) Pratt passed to Hookey Apodaca, who made a wide lateral pass to Lauro Apodaca who raced 35 yards for the score. Spanogle tied the score with his conversion.”
New Mexico State 28, North Texas State 8: Despite being an eight point underdog, the Aggies dominated this game from the start in coach Woodson’s second season in Las Cruces. The Aggies scored twice on early Eagle fumbles (yes, North Texas has changed nicknames) and added a second quarter score to lead 21-0 at the half. North Texas drove for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, but the Aggies retaliated on the next drive. Quarterback Charley Johnson was the game’s Outstanding Player, throwing the first touchdown pass given up by North Texas all season, and Aggie running backs Pervis Atkins and Bob Gaiters amassed over 200 yards. The Aggie defense, led by Billy Ray Locklin and Bob Kelly, forced seven fumbles and deserved much of the credit for this win. Danny Villanueva, who later joined Johnson, Atkins, Gaiters, Locklin, and Kelly in the NFL, was the Aggies’ kicker.
New Mexico State 20, Utah State 13: The Utah State defensive line, anchored by 1961 Outland Trophy winner and Football Hall-of-Famer Merlin Olsen, made life difficult for the undefeated NMSU Aggies all day. USU scored in the first quarter; the teams traded touchdowns in the second making the halftime score 13-7 for the northern Aggies. Gaiters scampered 32 yards for a third quarter score to tie the game; Atkins conversion gave NMSU a one point lead. Johnson’s second touchdown pass of the day made the final score 20-13, but the game was saved by a defensive stop, holding USU on the NMSU 20 yard line with 90 seconds to play. Aggies Jimmy Campbell and Allen Sepkowitz, later a legendary El Paso high school football coach, made that final tackle. Johnson received his second consecutive Most Valuable Player award, and NMSU’s nation-leading win streak was extended to fifteen.
(Thanks to NMSU Sports Information for compiling much of the data on these games.)
Why the Long Drought
Born in Las Cruces to NMSU season ticket holders, I was two years old when the Aggies last went to a bowl game. I have lived through the many issues that have led to the 57-year gap between bowls. (I cried when I found out Jim Wood, the coach who succeeded Woodson, was fired; his daughter and my second-grade good friend was going to move away.) Certainly, the proliferation of bowl games (there were nine in 1960) has helped the Aggies to return this year. There have been many very good players at NMSU since Woodson’s departure, but no very good programs. Here are a few reasons, from my perspective, for the state of Aggie football over the past six decades.
The Woodson curse: Warren Woodson came to coach Aggie football in 1958, after coaching Hardin-Simmons to five bowl games, and four winning seasons of five at Arizona. His departure from NMSU, widely rumored to be a forced retirement at age 65, dismantled the program Woodson had built; it has taken the Aggies a loooooong time to rebuild. For a more complete discussion, read Jason Groves’ Las Cruces Sun-News story on the Woodson curse.
Conference instability: During Woodson’s tenure, the Border Conference and the Skyline Conference, to which Utah State belonged, were dissolved with the formation of the Western Athletic Conference by schools from each. Both Aggies petitioned for membership, but were not admitted until all the original schools had left the conference. In a largely football driven effort to remain in the top division, the Aggies have weathered periods of independence and memberships in the Missouri Valley, which dropped to FCS; the Big West and the WAC, which both dropped football; and two stints in the Sun Belt, which recently dropped the Aggies. This has largely been caused by:
Distance from anywhere: It is a long way from Las Cruces to most anywhere. There is no conference, FCS, FBS, Division II or Division III, to which New Mexico State could participate in a “bus league.” In FBS, the closest schools are UTEP, 35 miles; New Mexico, 225 miles; Arizona, 275 miles; Texas Tech, 360 miles; and Arizona State, 383 miles. Even when these schools were together in the Border Conference in the 1930’s, to save travel costs they scheduled four basketball games between each pair of teams, two at home on one weekend, two on the road another.
Impatience: Since Woodson’s decade at the helm, the Aggie program has been led by a new head coach almost every five years. A number of different approaches have been tried: hire an experienced Division II or FCS coach, hire an assistant or a former head coach from what we would now call a Power 5 program, or hire a local high school legend. Most of these have been given four or five years to build a program. Some have tried to build with high school players and not been considered successful enough to continue; some have tried the transfer/junior college quick-fix route, creating academic and other discipline issues, and not enough success to continue.
Only Jim Hess and Tony Samuel have had more than five years to try, and they got seven and eight respectively. Of these nine men (before Doug Martin), the most successful by winning percentage was Jim Bradley, hired from Las Cruces Mayfield High School, who coached the co-champions of the Missouri Valley team in 1978. Woodson had seven winning seasons in ten as the Aggie head coach; there have been four since (1978-Bradley-MVC, 1992-Hess-Big West, 1999-Samuel-Big West, 2002-Samuel-Sun Belt) with 2017 hanging in the balance at 6-6.
Even this year, with APR scores rising and the program clearly improving annually, Doug Martin’s contract was not renewed until he had completed the sweep of both nearby rivals, New Mexico and UTEP. It is telling that this sweep has only been accomplished eight times ever, and only twice (2003 and 2017) since the last bowl game in 1960.
In the final press conference before the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl, Doug Martin talked about respect: “I certainly think our guys have made a name for themselves. New Mexico State is an interesting dynamic to coach and play for. It’s an us-against-the-world mentality. We’ve been trying to instill that in our players for a while, and this group is the first to have embraced that. The only way to get (respect) is to perform well and perform consistently. We’ve never been the champions of anything; we have the chance to be bowl champions. Getting here is one thing; staying here will be harder.”
Martin said another thing: “Utah State’s as good as anyone we’ve played.” Enjoy the game.